Huxley From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest - Adrian Desmond

Adrian Desmond
Huxley : From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest

"Among historians of nineteenth-century British science, Adrian Desmond reigns as the current master of studies in social context as a necessary matrix of all intellectual innovation....In Huxley he has beautifully consummated the marriage of his unique skills with their ideal subject."
-- Stephen Jay Gould, The London Times
The story of Thomas Huxley is a group of fascinating tales woven together in the life of a single man. Although Huxley is probably best known now as the coiner of the term "agnostic", his life embodies far, far more than that. He was evolution's mouthpiece, the first (and perhaps largest until Carl Sagan) champion of science education, and a fine scientist in his own right. His story also includes the classic 'rags to riches' element even though his riches were more of the fame, rather than monetary, variety.

Huxley was a man who typical religionists disliked. His wife Nettie (p. 285) "found that his 'deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of Theology'. No husband 'manifested more of the moral presuppositions of Puritan evangelicalism'." This irked those in the orthodox communities who enjoy painting everyone who doesn't believe as they do to be 'evil'. Unfortunately for those who find a diversity of beliefs to be intolerable, Huxley abhorred much of the same 'immorality' that they did. He felt 'sin' had its own natural rewards and there was no need for some sort of supernatural deity to punish wrong doing. "The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun" is how he put it.

Huxley practiced 'pure science'. He left pre-conceived notions and wishful thinking at the door and let his observations and the facts speak for themselves. Very early in his career, Huxley told a Christian Reverend to "Sit down before fact as a little child. I have only begun to learn content & peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this". (p. 288)

Perhaps most interesting, and a facet that Desmond devotes considerable space to, is that although Huxley was evolution's champion and close friends with Darwin, he wasn't an advocate for Darwin's co-discovery of Natural Selection. He didn't speak against it either. The subject matter simply wasn't discussed. He concentrated on phylogeny--the historical (paleontological), homological, and archetypal evidence since it was these 'hard facts' that were convincing to him. Huxley, as a paleontologist and physiologist, didn't seem too concerned with the mechanism by which evolution occurred.

Early in life, Huxley was able to have an experience similar in many ways to Darwin's on the Beagle. His ship was called the Rattlesnake. Although this voyage helped to launch his career, it was, in many Scientific ways, wasted (due to his falling in love with Nettie mid-way through). Desmond's description of this trip is just as engaging as his telling of Darwin's Beagle adventures in Darwin. After this journey, Huxley began moving his way up in the scientific community, ultimately transforming the field as it was then known. He served on countless boards--acting as commissioner and president of numerous societies. "He had worn out more professors' caps and Commissioners' chairs and pumped out more memoirs and essays than any five rivals". (p. 505)

He was also a prophet in that he predicted that "'freethought' would ultimately 'organise itself into a coherent system embracing human life & the world as one harmonious whole'." (p. 501) Anyone who has read much on the latter-20th Century freethought movements will agree that this prediction has largely come true. Even the general population is slowly becoming aware of the harmony between (and interdependence of) humans and the rest of the world.

Perhaps the most misunderstood word (and the reasoning behind its formation) is 'agnostic'. Before the 20th Century, the word 'atheist' was a very 'dirty' word. (It still is today in the minds of many believers.) Rather than be a description of someone who lacked a belief in god, which is clearly what Huxley did--he claimed that '99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me Atheist', an atheist in those days generally described a person who rebelled against current society, was a socialist, and sought revolutionary reform (similar to Napoleonic France). Non-believing, non-socialistic, respectable people who, although wanting reform, weren't nearly as radical or violent in their views needed a word to describe their beliefs or outlook on life. To use the word 'atheist' in Huxley's day, even though it only means non-theist, would have lumped him, and others like him, in with the socialists. Huxley created the word in response to this environment. Other freethinkers quickly adopted the word, and it has remained a part of English vocabulary to this day.

The style for Huxley is similar to that used in Darwin. Desmond weaves numerous letters, journals, and lectures of Huxley into the text to form the biography. My only complaint is that the narrative was occasionally confusing or unclear. This may have been caused, in part, by the British English used. Someone from the UK, or who has read many Victorian writings, may not find this to be much of a problem. Overall, Huxley is a fascinating book, written with flair, which serves as an excellent companion volume to Darwin. Those who read it alone to find out about this transformer of the Victorian age won't be disappointed either.

from the publisher:
T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) was Darwin's bloody-fanged bulldog. His giant scything intellect shook a prim Victorian society; his "Devil's gospel" of evolution outraged. He put "agnostic" into the vocabulary and cave men into the public consciousness. Adrian Desmond's fiery biography with its panoramic view of Dickensian life explains how this agent provocateur rose to become the century's greatest prophet. Touching the crowning heights and the crushing depths, this is the epic story of a man whose life summed up the social changes from the Victorian to the modern age.

"Challenging and stimulating . . . a dramatic if densely detailed and sometimes self-consciously literary life of Thomas Huxley." -- Publishers Weekly

"America at the end of this century awaits its own Huxley. When he does come along, Adrian Desmond's splendid biography will provide a blueprint for how to wage a successful campaign on behalf of science and its grand ideals." -- The Wall Street Journal